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The Inside Track - Why psychological edge is key to Olympic success

Insight

18 July 2016

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While I was watching the Euro 2016 football final last week I saw the BBC's trailer for the Rio Olympics for the first time. It's hard to believe that almost four years has passed since I raced at Eton Dorney and that there is less than a month to go until the curtain is raised on the next Games. The GB rowing team have now completed the World Cup series, their Olympic dress rehearsal, with mixed performances, there is still plenty of work to be done before they line up in Rio.

Of course the physical training is hugely important but with so many nations at the top of their game the psychological edge could be the difference between success and failure. In my first year back in the British men's eight I remember creating our ‘Team Charter’, a set of shared co-created behaviours, about six weeks before the 2010 World Championships. Our coach reminded us that the colour of the medal we ended up with would be determined not by what we pulled out of the bag on the day but by how we prepared each and every day. We agreed that we were determined to win gold and all committed to the tough but often simple behaviours required in order to make the most of every moment of training. Those behaviours included arriving early for training in order to be physically and mentally prepared so we could be totally focused for that two-hour period. Afterwards we would all regroup to debrief the session and we even agreed to remove our sunglasses so we could look each other in the eye. If difficult feedback needed to be given, we would be brave enough to deliver it and open enough to receive it. Not rocket science, just a clear and simple charter which brought us closer as a team with a shared objective.

The 2016 Team GB rowers are currently up a mountain in Austria for three weeks of gruelling altitude training. They will endure tough sessions to build their technique and physical fitness but they will also be building that psychological edge. I can vividly picture the water they will be rowing on and the rather basic beds they will be sleeping in as I have been on that camp many times since my first one back in 1992. That year I was there with my older brother, Jonny, preparing to race the coxed pair in Barcelona. As siblings we already had a close bond but we developed an even deeper level of trust as we pushed ourselves to the max every day. We also chose to move our cox, Garry Herbert, into our tiny bedroom as we felt it was essential for us to bond as a team of three. This was a very conscious decision on our part as a cox could be seen as just a dead weight - someone who the rowers have to "carry" along but we embraced him as an essential part of our bid to win gold, Garry wasn't just there to physically steer our boat, he was also crucial in his role of supporting and challenging us through every back-breaking training session. 

Garry didn’t actually pull the oar; he didn’t actually make the boat go any faster, but we recognised the importance of the information he supplied to us and how he often picked us up when things became hard. He gave us the difficult feedback we needed and often didn’t want to hear! He became an integral member of our team who oiled the wheels of our success. Within organisations and teams there are many people in these "supporting" roles and it's often hard to make them feel empowered and give them a sense of responsibility within the framework of success. I'm not suggesting cramming yourselves into small communal spaces is the answer (our room did get rather claustrophobic at times!) but it is so important to recognise that each individual within the team needs to feel they can really make a difference.

I can't say I'm sorry to be missing that oxygen-depleted, relentlessly repetitive training camp in the Austrian mountains but I know that if they use those three weeks wisely they can build a true psychological edge which will help them to realise their potential in Rio.

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